Monday, November 16, 2015

Normal Schedule Coming Soon

Howdy folks! We will be getting back to a normal schedule soon. Things have been a little hectic, plus I haven't found anything worth reviewing lately. Thanks for your patience! [+] Read More...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Recommendation: Monster Hunters International

No film today. Instead, I’m going to recommend a book that you will enjoy a lot, and I’m going to crap on another one. Both are by conservatives and I think there is a valuable lesson in comparing the two.

The book I’m going to recommend is called Monster Hunters International and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. The book I’m going to crap on is called Freehold and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. Consider this...

MHI is written by Larry Correia, who is some sort of conservative. He’s probably libertarian more than conservative, but I’m not sure. The book starts with the premise that all the mythical monsters we know, e.g. vampires and werewolves, are real and are a genuine menace. To eliminate the menace, the Federal government has a secret agency whose job it is to hunt these creatures – it’s illegal to tell the public about the existence of these creatures and people who do tell the truth are made to disappear.

The story isn’t about the Feds, however. Instead, it’s about a group of private bounty hunters who hunter monsters for something called PUFF bounties. This is a program set up long ago in the past which continues today because powerful political allies keep the Feds from shutting it down. Monster Hunters International is one such group of bounty hunters, and the main character finds himself recruited to the group after he fights off a werewolf with his bare hands.

What works so well in this book is Correia’s style and his originality. The writing is funny and easy to read, yet Correia doesn’t sacrifice description or storytelling to dumb the book down. The monsters are interesting too. Indeed, he twists them all a bit to make them unusual, and the main monster is an original creation with a fascinating history. He even pokes Tolkien rather playfully. (You’re going to love Skippy.)

Now, the book has a few flaws, but not enough to ruin the book. For example, I find the main female character to be pure cardboard. There are a couple of “coincidences” in the ending that weakened the story too. But all in all, I enjoyed the book very much.

So let me touch upon the politics. Correia is obviously a conservative and he’s certainly overt in his conservatism, and he’s clearly a gun nut. But it never bothered me. To the contrary, it felt entirely natural that these private-sector monster hunters would be anti-authority/free market types who despise the Feds, and it never felt like he was preaching or lecturing. To the contrary, it just came across as natural whenever the issue arose in the book.

That brings me to the comparison.

After finishing this, I went looking for other conservative authors. I came upon someone named Michael Williamson, who wrote a book called Freehold. This is the classic example of being blinded by ideology. Williamson is clearly a libertarian, though he seems to be the type who confuses libertinism with libertarianism. Freehold is the story of an Earth woman who works for the UN Peace Force, which controls the world, and she flees after being wrongly accused of stealing military equipment. She flees to the only planet in the galaxy that is run on the principle of individual freedom and small (non-existent) government.

The problems with this story mount from page one. For one thing, good writers know to introduce your characters in ways that make them memorable. This book doesn’t do that. Instead, the book begins with the main character fleeing Earth, traveling to the new planet, and then getting settled all in massive administrative detail. There is no action here, just page after page of the main character walking around as the author describes how horrible the regulated world is and how great the unregulated world is. What’s more, the main character acts as little more than a straw-man character who asks question so that others can lecture her on how great their unregulated world is. This makes for a truly dull read as it feels like you are being lectured rather than being told a story.

Finally, as an ironic aside, even if I accepted the ideological arguments Williamson makes, and I definitely do not – he basically makes the mistake of arguing that a libertine/anarchical world would cure all problems and make all people good – I still found myself cringing at the idea of living in his “perfect” world. When Correia railed against the government, I accepted what he said and I saw the wisdom in it because he was pointing out how government interference prevented better people from doing what needed to be done in the right way. When Williamson does it, it sounds like a childish fantasy cure-all.

The lesson here is again that injecting politics is fine, but the story must always come first and the politics must fit naturally within the story and the characters. The purpose of the story can’t be the politics and the politics can’t be so overwhelming that the audience feels like they are being lectured. And seriously, if you’re going to inject your politics, make sure it sounds like a good thing to your readers.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1818

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?..

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous a wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

The Story Every English Schoolboy Knows…

…begins in Geneva. However, this story really begins in Indonesia. In 1815, the volcanic Mount Tambora exploded. The debris released into the sky were thick enough to blot out part of the sunlight worldwide; dropping temperatures all over Earth fell and causing 1816 to be remembered as the “Year Without a Summer.” (Freezing conditions were reported in New England and northern Europe as late as July.) It was this miserable weather that forced four 19th-centurey hippies to spend their Swiss vacation indoors.

The Contest and the Nightmare

Stranded inside the Villa Diodati along Lake Geneva, and isolated from the starvation, diseases, and other weather-induced issues most of the world’s population was enduring, Percy Shelley, his then-future wife Mary, Lord Byron, and John Polidori (Byron’s physician), tried to pass the time by complaining about the world’s lack of enlightenment and how everything could be solved if people just ‘lived for today’ (like them). Finally, the well-endowed friends got tired of whining about the weather and amused themselves by reading a book of ghost stories. Finally, Byron proposed a contest in which they would each write their own ghost story. Neither Byron nor Shelley finished theirs; Polidori wrote one from a fragment that Byron started. (The work, ‘The Vampyre,’ was later condemned by Byron.) Only 18 year-old Mary completed the contest after having a ‘waking dream’ in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts” standing over a man he’d created.

He Who Tried to Play God…and Failed Miserably

Okay, I’ll try to keep this brief. While trying to sail to the North Pole, Captain Robert Walton rescues an emaciated man in the Arctic. The man, Victor Frankenstein, tells Walton his story. As a boy, Victor studied science at the family estate in Geneva. However, his true interests were studying the theories of life and chemistry created by outdated alchemists. When he goes to college at Ingolstadt, Victor spends two years creating a perfect man. However, working with larger human pieces, (which was easier), the result is a powerful, but hideous creation. Victor goes home, but the Monster follows, killing Victor’s youngest brother. The two finally meet in the mountains, where the Monster implores Victor to create a mate for him and end his loneliness. Victor leaves for Scotland and is almost finished with the mate, but destroys the project at the last minute. The Monster then follows Victor back Geneva, causing the deaths of Victor’s best friend, bride, and father. Thereafter Victor chases the Monster into the Arctic. At the end, Victor dies, and the Monster boards Walton’s boat to mourn his creator. He sails into the distance, and Walton orders his ship to head for home.
Was it just a Nightmare?

The popular story goes that Mary spent the next year turning the dream into a short story, which was then turned into a novel with Shelley’s help. However, Mary may have been inspired by more than her dream. The story heavily cites Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially the tumultuous relationship between God and Satan (with whom the Monster identifies. Mary’s family- the Wollstonecrafts- were very up-to-date on the latest advances in science. She, herself, cited galvanism, the process of causing muscles to twitch when struck with electricity, (discovered by Luigi Galvini in the late 18th century), as a key inspiration for Frankenstein’s actions. However, some historians think Giovanni Aldini, Galvini’s nephew who furthered his uncle’s work, may have been an inspiration. Johann Konrad Dipple, an early-18th-century alchemist alleged to have conducted unusual biological experiments is believed to be another. (Mary and Shelley may have visited his castle on one occasion.) Whether Victor’s family name ‘Frankenstein’ comes from another of Mary’s dreams (as she claimed), or is a reference to a known German castle or family is still debated. What isn’t debated is how the heart of the story remains the hubris of Victor Frankenstein. In his pride to do the impossible, he went blindly ahead, creating a man, but failing to appreciate the responsibilities and consequences of his actions. (Thus making it, like Jekyll and Hyde, an oddly moral story written by someone who- along with her friends- held immorality up as a virtue.)

A Note on the Title

The longer publication title, ‘Modern Prometheus,’ refers to the Greek titan, Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’). In Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire (reserved only for the gods), from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans. A furious Zeus had him chained to a rock where a bird would eat out Prometheus’ liver every day. (Being immortal, it would grow back every night.) Like Victor Frankenstein, he failed to think ahead. Now, for the reason you really came here: the movies.
Frankenstein (Edison Studios, 1910)

This grainy, early-silent era version of the tale produced by the man who invented motion pictures clocks in at 12 minutes. (And you thought my summary was short.) And it fares like a bad romance novel. Basically, Victor (Augustus Phillips) creates his Monster (Charles Ogle), despairs, and goes home. After re-encountering his creation, Victor professes his love for his bride (Mary Fuller), purifying himself, causing the Monster to disappear. Does this make the Monster a hallucination of Victor’s dark half? Is this pre-WWI Fight Club? I think I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Victor Frankenstein: Not a lot to say here. Phillips plays him as a happy-go-lucky guy dressed like a 17th-century fop who screws with nature, but fixes everything with the power of love.

The Monster: I have not been able to find out where Ogle’s shaggy monster appearance came from. But it sure is memorable-looking. The Monster isn’t complex here. It acts like a jealous pet that tries to Victor’s bride when she comes between it and its creator.

Full Movie HERE
Frankenstein (Universal, 1931)

Now, we’re getting somewhere. This is the movie that defined Universal Studios horror for the ages. Director James Whale may have simplified the complexities of the story, but he makes up for it with some of the most memorable images and performances captured on film. This is the movie that established the driven mad scientist, the hunchbacked assistant (Dwight Frye as Fritz- NOT Ygor), the friends who appeal to the mad scientist’s sense of reason to stop, the isolated laboratory (it was originally supposed to be art deco, but was changed to a Gothic castle), highly electrified lab equipment (created by Ken Strickfaden and reused in Young Frankenstein), and the crowd of torch-and-pitchfork-bearing angry villagers, among others. Controversial for its time, the scenes of Victor screaming about how it was like to be God and the Monster accidentally drowning a village girl were censored not long after release.
Henry Frankenstein: The eccentric Colin Clive plays the Frankenstein we’ve come to know quite well. Clive’s Henry is a proud, obsessed fanatic, showing off the creation of his creation to his friends just to prove how advanced he is. After the Monster kills Fritz, Waldman (Edward van Sloan), and the village girl, he becomes equally consumed with a desire to destroy the Monster, and is nearly killed himself.
The Creature: Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show: Boris Karloff. Possibly Hollywood’s all-time late-bloomer (he was in his early 40’s when he got this breakout role), Karloff was hired as a replacement when Bela Lugosi turned down the role (allegedly for the lack of lines). While the movie is mainly remembered for the makeup, Karloff’s physical acting, showing the Creature with a childlike wonder for the world and the equally childlike emotions of sadness, loneliness, and fear, endowed the performance with a humanity lacking in most- say, 99%- of all movie monsters.
The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935)

Coaxed back into the director’s chair, James Whale made this second entry into the series on the condition he could do whatever he wanted. After re-reading the novel, Whale took a few ideas- mainly the Monster’s encounter with a blind man and desire for a mate- and ran from there. The story really focuses on the actions of Dr. Pretorius (an original character played by Ernest Theisiger), who wants to create a race of creatures based on Frankenstein’s work. He blackmails and, later, threatens Victor into working with him. Pretorius also seeks out and befriends the Monster in order to make the creature a willing participant in the experiment. However, when the Bride (Elsa Lancaster) comes to life, she- like everyone else- rejects the Monster. In a rage, the Monster destroys the lab, apparently killing himself, Pretorius, and the bride (Victor and his wife escape).
This is the rare movie considered better than the original. Whale’s trademark attention to details and minor characters in order to make every scene memorable is also on full display, causing many to consider Bride his finest work. (Your author, however, would say that honor goes to The Invisible Man.)
Henry Frankenstein: This time around, Colin Clive’s signature character is broken and morose, (possibly mirroring Clive’s own alcoholism at the time.) Now devoted to his wife, he only comes out of retirement when her life is threatened. It is worth noting, however, that he seemingly enjoys the creation of the Bride.
The Creature: He speaks! Director Whale decided that allowing the Creature to learn to speak (like he does in the novel), though in a childlike way, would enhance the character. For the record, Karloff hated the idea. Still, Karloff once again played the desperately lonely role to perfection. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), the only person who treats the Creature as a friend, are remarkably effective and touching.
The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957)

Call this one the kingmaker. This is THE movie that launched the careers of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, (who started their famous friendship while making this film), as well as director Terence Fisher. In a nod to the novel, Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) tells his story to a priest while in prison. The film focuses mainly on Frankenstein and his relationship with his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). At first, they’re both dedicated to their work. However, a split occurs when Paul wants to announce their early findings on animals to the world and Frankenstein insists on secret human experiments first. Though the two never give up on each other, they grow apart as Paul increasingly opposes Frankenstein and his former pupil descends from obsession into amorality, madness, and evil. Another fine example of Hammer taking liberties with a story and making it work with deeply satisfying results. Of course, it ends back in prison with Victor being lead to the guillotine.


Baron Victor Von Frankenstein: Cushing plays a remarkably effective Frankenstein. He’s neither a foolish college student, nor a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. In fact, he’s both. In an arc worthy of Walter White, he goes from mere curiosity and a desire to better humanity, to an obsessive mania to finish his experiments and prove his theories right. (He also cheats on his fiancée and murders for a brain.) Fans consider this and his role as a demonic fortune teller in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965) as the performances that made hi ma horror icon.
The Monster: Christopher Lee is hard to recognize- and I’m not talking about the makeup. This Monster is a pathetic creature easily beaten, tortured and used by its creator. A real bit player. In fact, Lee only got the role when he agreed to work for eight pounds a day, as opposed to the first choice, Bernard Bresslaw, who demanded ten pounds a day. According to producer Peter Rogers, “And so, for the sake of two pounds, Christopher Lee became an international star.”

Original trailer HERE
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (American Zoetrope/Tristar Pictures, 1992)

Amazingly, this one is actually the most book-accurate. I say amazingly because it can be so hard to follow at times. Director Kenneth Branaugh did an admirable job of not relying on or paying homage to previous ‘Frankenstein’ movies. He places it firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century time period and carefully follows the book’s character arc. Where it falls short is the manic direction. The camera and editing move like an Olympic sprinter with ADD. At least one third of the dialogue consists of actors yelling like the Novocain wore off halfway through the dental work. And the twist at the end of using Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter’s) body for the Bride just struck me as tacky. Oh, and BTW, the less said about the overt sexual imagery in the Monster’s creation scene, the better.
Victor Frankenstein: A while back, I saw post on IMDB that described this film as Kenneth Branaugh’s love letter to himself. I don’t know who that guy was, but he deserves a thumbs up. The camera is constantly zooming in on Branaugh in the role (when the editor doesn’t just start with a close-up of him, that is). Branaugh also suffers from Matthew McConaughey-level shirtlessness throughout the flick. (He’s also too old to be playing a college student.) Since when did being the director mean you could focus so much on yourself in your own movie?
The Monster: Is this when Robert DeNiro really began phoning it in? Honestly, there’s nothing memorable about this. DeNiro uses a losing-at-poker face throughout the movie. Unlike Karloff, he never bothers to endow himself to the audience. And…ah, nothing else to say. Just a classic case of going through the motions and picking up the check.

Original trailer HERE

So, who’s your favorite Victor? Monster? Movie?

Full text of Frankenstein HERE
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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not Coming To A Theater Near You

by Jason

Hollywood has plundered its TV catalog for feature film fodder for so long, it’s getting harder to think of older shows that haven’t been put onto celluloid. Still, there are a few no-shows that do stand out, that make you wonder, “Why didn’t the studio chiefs put this property onto the big screen?”

I compiled my own personal list of surprises that stayed on the small screen, VHS, and DVD, and didn’t make that leap. Some could have been made when the show was still on the air and featured the TV cast, while others more likely would have been rebooted with a new cast. In ascending order of surprise, I give you my list of TV shows that I’m surprised never got made into movies.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: Okay, I’m not actually surprised there wasn’t a Lois and Clark movie. Warners was obviously trying to reboot its Superman film franchise and any resulting movie would carry the Superman moniker and not be related to an existing TV show. At the time, however, the studio had picked Nicolas Cage to be Supes for its proposed Superman Reborn/Lives flick that ultimately never got made, which left a lot of people (myself included) wondering what the producers were thinking. At one point I wondered why they didn’t just port over Dean Cain, since he obviously looked the part and for five seasons played the part to no great complaint. It seemed like Warner Bros. didn’t have a clue how to properly cast Superman, so it seemed weird why they didn’t just go with a pretty good choice right under their nose. And painful memories of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in Superman Returns makes me retroactively pine for Teri Hatcher to have joined Cain on the big screen.

Kung Fu: This was a popular show in the early 70s and helped popularize kung fu action for American audiences. Given the rise of Asian martial arts movie stars and Hong Kong-style fight choreography in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s surprising Hollywood hasn’t rebooted this show for a feature film.

Max Headroom: Most people that grew up in the 80s remember Matt Frewer’s well-dressed A.I. with an occasional stutter (though I don’t know if anyone remembers the actual plot of the show Max was spawned from). The actual show never did better than cult status, but with decades of advances in computer technology, one would think someone would cart out an updated version of Max for the big screen. Be-be-be-believe it!

Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Call this the Irwin Allen smorgasbord, outside of Lost in Space which did get a movie in 1997. Back then, it seemed Hollywood was going crazy plundering sci-fi and adventure shows for movies, but they seemed to miss (or just not care for) much of Irwin Allen’s produced catalog. Also, I’m only counting Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a reboot movie, since there was a 1961 movie that the subsequent show was based on.

Space 1999: Again, it’s a surprise this British-made sci-fi show got missed in the 90s’ TV-to-movie run, although I’m sure it’d end up called Space: 2099 for obvious reasons.

V: Actually, you could argue Independence Day is pretty much what you’d get from a V movie, minus the allegory of fascists-as-aliens walking among us. Plus I wonder how many people would think this is a prequel to V for Vendetta.

Babylon 5: An awesome sci-fi show that, for all of its quality, still suffered from being in the shadow of Star Trek. Still, it had enough name recognition that a movie could have been made. For a while in the late 90s, series creator J. Michael Straczynski was planning to make a movie, but then stated he’d rather wait until after the Star Wars prequels were finished, as his movie might suffer in comparison, f/x wise. For whatever reason, a B5 movie was never made, although recently JMS has talked up a reboot possibility.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I know there was a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson as Buffy, but I’m referring to the much-better received TV show instead. Like Babylon 5, this is another cult TV show that never quite broke out into the mainstream, and getting a movie made might have helped boost its standing. A lack of a Buffy movie with its TV cast is a bit more surprising than B5 because teen horror movies (The Scream movies, for example) were hot in the late 1990s, and a Buffy movie could have easily ridden that wave. For whatever reason, it’s unlikely there will be any big screen Buffy except for a reboot, as the TV cast has likely aged too much out of the roles.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess: Either one of these shows. This franchise was big back in the day, Xena especially, as it pretty much overtook Hercules in popularity (Xena got so big at one point you almost forgot Hercules even existed). Yet it’s surprising Universal never tried to parlay its success into a motion picture franchise, even when Lord of the Rings became a smash and memories of Herc and Xena were still relatively fresh, although the failure of the Kevin Sorbo-headliner Kull may not have helped.

The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman: Another male action show and its female protagonist (and arguably more popular) spin-off. Isn’t it strange that two well known shows featuring cybernetic humans, with stories rife with the possibility of big screen action and explosions, haven’t been adapted to the screen while Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard have? I heard at one point a comedy version of Six Million Dollar Man was being considered. Oy.

Quantum Leap: One of the most successful science fiction network TV shows of all time, although that’s probably because this is more Highway to Heaven than Star Trek when you think about it. Again, another Universal-made show that was big at the time, with talk that it would go to the big screen while the series was still on the air. But Scott Bakula never got to make that big leap (yeah I know, bad pun), even after the series was cancelled.

Magnum P.I.: The lack of a movie for this show must prove Universal really doesn’t give a rip about its TV catalog, as Magnum was absolutely huge back in the 80s. How is it that Universal never considered making a Magnum movie, particularly with Tom Selleck in the role? For years after the series wrapped, he could easily have reprised the role, and Selleck had already proven he could carry movie roles. Today a Magnum movie would likely be a reboot, but it’s quite surprising we haven’t seen that, either.

Family Guy: Out of the hugely popular teen and adult-skewering animated comedies of the past few decades (South Park, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head), this is the only one I can think of that never got a feature film. I suspect it’s more because of lack of interest on the part of the show’s creator Seth McFarlane, although considering his recent spate of projects haven’t been as successful, like The Cleveland Show, the move of American Dad! to TBS, and the disappointing box office of his last two movies, he may end up going for it.

So, any titles I’ve missed? What TV show are you surprised that Hollywood hasn’t butchered, uh, I mean, “adapted” for the big screen?
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Monday, October 26, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1886

“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness…

“I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine…

“I stole through the corridors, a stranger in my own house; and coming to my room, I saw (in the mirror) for the first time the appearance of Edward Hyde.”

In the Foggy Streets of London…

While out for his weekly constitutional, John Utterson, an unassuming lawyer, spots a strange door at the back of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s home. His companion, Enfield, suddenly remembers a recent encounter with a terrible man named Edward Hyde, who trampled a girl and then arrived at that very house for money that he used to pay off the girl’s family. Utterson is worried because recently Jekyll changed his will, giving everything to this Hyde person. At a dinner party a few days later, Jekyll assures Utterson that nothing is wrong and that Hyde will leave if Jekyll tells him to.

A year later, Hyde is seen killing an MP with Jekyll’s walking stick. Utterson is worried that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll into silence (and plans to kill Jekyll as well). Jekyll tells Utterson that he’s done with Hyde, but after a few months, cuts all social ties. About that time, their mutual fiend, Dr. Haste Lanyon, dies mysteriously, cursing Jekyll’s name. Not long after, Jekyll’s servants call Utterson to their house, fearing the worst. Inside the lab, they find Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes, dead by suicide. Subsequently, Utterson opens two letters. The first is from Lanyon, sent to Utterson a few weeks earlier. It says that after gathering some requested chemicals from Jekyll’s lab, he saw Hyde transform in Jekyll. (The shock led to his demise.) The second is Jekyll’s confession. The middle-aged doctor reveals that he created a serum (“potion” in the story), that allowed him to become the younger Hyde and indulge in forbidden vices. Eventually, Hyde got too strong and the changes came involuntarily. With the antidote failing and about to become Hyde permanently, Jekyll locked himself in the lab.

…Or Should We Say Edinburgh?

When Robert Louis Stevenson- sickly asthma sufferer, hipster-before-it-was-a-thing, and the original Holden Caufield- wrote Jekyll and Hyde, he wasn’t writing a good versus evil story. This is a story of hypocrisy. Stevenson grew up in the two-faced city Edinburgh, Scotland- part modern city, part medieval slum. Stevenson grew to hate the Victorian insistence on social grace and the importance of reputation. In a view reminiscent of the film The Purge, he saw everyone as hiding their true, sordid natures behind good-natured facades. (In the story, Jekyll sees himself as uncomfortable in his skin, while Hyde was a ‘genuine’ man.) It’s little surprise he enjoyed trips to the city’s old town and, later, wrote a novel that celebrated the pirate way of life.

The official story is that Stevenson wrote a draft following a “bogey” nightmare, only to have his wife say that it needed to be an allegory. He then burned the manuscript and wrote the new story in only a few days. Some historians challenge this, citing Stevenson’s poor health and the fact he never told anyone about this process. (He was a professional gossip.) Whatever the case, the 82-page novella debuted and quickly became a best-seller.
You Don’t Know Jekyll

To understand this story, it’s important to remember that Jekyll isn’t a wholly good man. Having indulged in vices (unnamed in the story), in his youth, he longs for a way to experience them again and break free of Victorian conformity. So, when the 50-year-old doctor creates his ‘potion,’ he willingly takes for a considerable time, only stopping after the MP’s murder. Jekyll is a first class hypocrite. In trying to indulge his vile passions, he unleashed his sociopathic dark side and damned himself in the process. It’s a strangely moral story coming from quite an immoral author, (similar to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). Also, Stevenson preferred to pronounce the name as JEEK-uhl. This is both the Scottish way of saying it; and it allows the title to rhyme vaguely with ‘hide and go seek.’

(Im)Perfect Timing

Within two years of publication, two things happened that changed the perception of the story. First, American actor Richard Mansfield adapted it for the stage, abandoning the non-linear format, focusing heavily on a love interest for Jekyll, and making it a good-versus-evil tale (allowing the audience to empathize with Jekyll). The play debuted in 1887 at- of all places in the British Realm!- the Lyceum Theater* and received rave reviews. Then, one year later in August, a prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols was found murdered in London’s Whitechapel district. Four more women were similarly done in through November by an unknown killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ by the press. The similarities between the Ripper and the fictional Hyde- men who secretly conducted horrible deeds in downtrodden parts of London- were too much for the public to ignore. Hyde has since been permanently associated with sexually sadistic crimes. (Though, except for the murder of the MP, they’re not described in any great detail in the story.)

(*-From 1878 to 1905, the Lyceum was managed by, uh…something, someone Stoker. >:-)=

Well, that’s enough history. Let’s get to the adaptations.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931)

One of the best known and most-celebrated versions, and it’s not hard to tell why. First, the film is amazingly well-photographed, using tracking and (Halloween-esque) POV shots to see the action through Jekyll’s eyes. The lavish, Victorian sets also do a great job of setting the period, which itself could be seen as an important characters. The story deviates heavily from the novella, however, relying heavily on Mansfield’s play. Most of the plot deals with Jekyll keeping his experiments secret from his fiancée; and, later, Hyde’s horrible abuse of a bar-singing girl (who earlier befriended Jekyll), whom he shacks up with in Soho. I must say, the pre-Production Code depictions of sexuality are incredibly racy, even for modern audiences. This is also the only major movie to use Stevenson’s preferred pronunciation of the doctor’s name, JEEK-uhl.
Jekyll: Frederic March shines in this dual role, making the doctor more complex than might be expected. Here, Jekyll openly talks of his experiments (they’re secret in the story) so as to purge evil from man. He first takes the potion while bored because his fiancée is traveling on the Continent with her overbearing father. Initially, he likes being Hyde, but is soon horrified by Hyde’s actions and tries to stop out of guilt. Thus, evil here is portrayed not as the result of hypocrisy, but out of weakness, and as corruptive and tragic. March’s performance was rewarded with the Best Actor award at the 1932 Oscars- a rare feat for starring in a horror movie.

Maybe it’s just me, but does Jekyll’s attempt to re-write human nature with a wonder cure only to backfire and produce the opposite of the intended result remind anyone of a certain political philosophy? Food for thought.
Hyde: The makeup and transformation scenes (using special makeup and camera filters), remain the high point of this film. Here, Hyde (called a troglodyte in the book), looks like the missing link and nothing like Jekyll. He’s funny at first, but quickly becomes brutal and truly threatening.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (MGM, 1941)

There’s not much to be said about this mistake. Basically, this a plot-point-for-plot-point remake of the 1931 movie. Literally. MGM bought the rights to the 1931 film from Paramount and remade it. Not only that, but MGM operatives were sent out to destroy all prints of the 1931 film to prevent it from being shown instead. No, I’m NOT kidding! (This resulted in the 1931 film being ‘lost’ for a few decades.) The film itself is dull. Not much imagination at all, even with Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind) directing and Lana Turner and Ingrid Berman as Jekyll’s fiancée and the bar singer, respectively.
Jekyll: The only word to describe Spencer Tracy here is miscast. His Jekyll is stiff and boring. He also sounds too American for such a definitively British setting. He’s just so uncomfortable as the doctor.
Kirk Douglas Hyde: Good grief. The only makeup used here seems to be a brow piece, messed-up hair, sweat, and Tracy’s over-the-top facial contortions and growls. (And a hallucination scene.) Unlike March and Robert Englund, Tracy just doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as a villain. And I don’t care what Bugs Bunny says. This one was a waste of time.

True story: Tracy’s performance was so panned in comparison to March, that March (a friend), sent him a telegram. March called the reviews the biggest boost to his own career!
I, Monster (Amicus, 1971)

No love interest, though heavy on the Freud talk. This version made by Hammer’s little brother gets closer to the novella, reunites one of the best horror duos ever, and, yet, somehow comes up short. The movie is dark and creepy, invoking the feel of Jack the Ripper’s London. Not too bad. But I think the problem is that director Stephen Weeks doesn’t know what to focus on. It’s the case where too much time is spent on meandering shots of the actors in their settings and plot points feel either rushed or cut too short (a.k.a. Peter Jackson Syndrome). Though, using a hypodermic needle for the potion is a nice touch.
Notably, the character of Utterson finally appears. Peter Cushing plays Jekyll’s Marlowe’s solicitor with all the skill you would expect of him. (Makes me remember why I miss him and his buddy, Chris Lee.) But something’s just not right.
Marlowe (Jekyll): First, I’m not sure why the central characters were renamed. Second, Christopher Lee plays the character as a classic hermit scientist who bases his experiments on Feudian theory. It’s almost like an unromantic version of March’s portrayal than the story version.

Blake (Hyde): Like Spencer Tracy, no budget was wasted on Hyde Blake’s makeup. It’s minimal again. However, it does get more gruesome as the movie goes on. Blake even seems to hate himself, as shown when he looks in a mirror and freaks out (a la Lampwick in Disney’s Pinocchio). But is he scary? Well, he’s Christopher freakin’ Lee!
Side note: IMO, Cushing was best when he used his physical acting skills to fill in dialogue-lacking parts of the script; while Lee was in top form when the script made use of his voice and presence to dominate the scene- such as in The House That Dripped Blood. This movie gets it backwards. Maybe that was the problem.
(Full movie HERE)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Burbank Films, 1986)

Another worthy animated adaptation from the Land Down Under. Though still a linear version, this version spends a good deal of time following the events through Mr. Utterson’s (John Ewart) eyes. (The world as seen by a lawyer. How can that not be scary?!) It also focuses heavily on the important theme of reputation as Utterson tries to protect his friend. Utterson, of course, represents rationality in an irrational story. Dr. Lanyon is also back to his story self, disagreeing with Jekyll, but remaining a friend until he sees Hyde’s transformation, after which he dies. Though several subplots are cut and/or cleaned up, this film hits all the right marks and comes the closest to Stevenson’s original vision.
Jekyll: Again, we have a ‘good’ Dr. Jekyll, instead of the middle-aged hypocrite. Well, it’s children’s’ film, so it works in that context. Max Meldrum is serviceable in the role, and makes for a very believable Victorian character.

Hyde: This is how Hyde should be. Shorter (he’s one half of Jekyll, after all), and ugly to the point of not looking like the doctor at all. David Nettheim’s guttural voice compliments the animation perfectly. Also, Hyde only murders one man- an MP- in the book. Here, he kills three people. Quite a body count for a kids’ cartoon!
(Full movie HERE)
All right. Those are just a few examples of one of the most analyzed stories ever written in the English language. Any comments on these four adaptations or on some that I didn’t cover?

Extra! Extra!

-Full text of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde HERE

-“Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror, Episode 3” (Documentary on the background of Jekyll and Hyde)

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Rustbelt
Publication Year: 1901- 1902 (serialized); 1902 (novel)

“…Sir Charles lay dead on his face, his arms out, his fingers dug into the ground, and his features convulsed with some strong emotion to such an extent that I could hardly have sworn to his identity. There was certainly no physical injury of any kind. But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did – some little distance off, but fresh and clear?”
“A man’s or a woman’s?”
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:
“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

A Ghastly Deed

On a dark and stormy night in December 1893, a fiend entered his own study. He could hardly have been prouder of his diabolical self. He’d committed the perfect crime- murder most foul. And by all accounts, there were no means- legal or otherwise- by which he could be held accountable for his actions. His grisly act left businessmen in London wearing black armbands, over 20,000 people cancelling subscriptions to the paper in which the gruesome act was reported, and mourning being declared all over the British Empire. And so, beaming with demonic delight at the misery he’d suddenly inflicted on so much of the globe, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his diary- with devilish glee- “Killed Holmes,” and then laughed the cruel, victorious laughter of villains. (Well, it’s a mostly true story.)
“Elementary, my dear Watson”

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887. He was the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor who turned to writing after becoming bored when his lethargic practice attracted few patients. He based Holmes after Dr. Joseph Bell, his college teacher who introduced Conan Doyle to deductive (or forensic) science. (Holmes’ companion, Dr. John Watson, is based on Conan Doyle himself.) The character soon became a pop culture icon, and Conan Doyle found himself writing new stories at a frantic pace to keep up with demand- usually with a new one in The Strand magazine every month. However, after six years, Conan Doyle was tired of writing about Holmes. Finally, in The Final Problem, he pitted Holmes against Professor James Moriarty, a man every bit as smart and cunning. (Think of him as Sherlock’s evil twin.) In the end, Holmes is only able to defeat the evil professor when both throw each other off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

“Stay off the moors!”

Conan Doyle spent the next eight years turning his interest towards historical fiction and his newfound interest in spiritualism. Eventually, (and with some help from Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a journalist and friend,) Conan Doyle began working on a supernatural story inspired by English folktales of demonic hellhounds. (Not hard for Doyle, who hated dogs with a fiery passion.) It centered on a mysterious death in a family allegedly afflicted with an ancient canine curse; a punishment for a sadistic ancestor who’d killed a peasant girl who tried to escape his ‘embrace.’ The story then turned into an investigation to determine, first, whether the death was supernatural or not; and then, second, to find out if death was about to strike again and why. At some point, Conan Doyle decided not to create a new central character to investigate the situation and simply inserted Holmes. The story was dated to take place before The Final Problem, or a case that Dr. Watson (who narrates almost all of the stories), hadn’t commented on before.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was an amazing success, figuratively ‘wedding’ Holmes and his creator for life. Giving into public demand, Conan Doyle brought the Great Detective back, (the character used the excuse that he’d faked his death and been in hiding for years to escape Moriarty’s agents), and continued to write new stories until 1927. (He died three years later.) In all, he wrote four novels and 56 short stories (hereafter referred to as ‘the canon’), starring Holmes. And Hound of the Baskervilles is considered his finest work. (And, yes, I’m aware that Holmes never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson” in the canon.)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (20th Century Fox, 1939)

This is considered to be one of the most iconic versions of the story. It follows the basic storyline: that of Dr. Mortimer arriving from Devon to ask for Holmes’ help following the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Not only does he have doubts about Sir Charles’ death, but he wants to protect his heir, Sir Henry, from a similar fate. Dr. Watson then heads to Devon with Sir Henry where he notes several suspects who could be behind the whole thing: Barrymore, the butler; Seldon, an escaped convict; Stapleton, an eccentric ex-schoolteacher; and a mysterious man spotted on the moors.

This film is beautifully shot. In fact, it was the first movie to show Holmes in native Victorian setting. (Other 20’s and 30’s films had updated the time period to modern times.) However, there’s a strong emphasis on scenes not in the book. (Sir Henry arriving by boat; a séance; an engagement dinner, etc.) The characters are also extremely nice to each other; which is odd for a story in which everyone acts suspiciously and could be hiding something. (John Carradine is given little to do as Barrymore.) And, IMO, the style and exposition makes it feel too much like a Universal horror film of the same time. It really left me wanting more.
Holmes: To say Basil Rathbone stands out as Holmes would be a classic British understatement. He gives a thoroughly stylized performance (common in cinema for the time) of an eccentric English gentleman that gets your attention. I think he’s a little too nice and giddy, without some of Holmes other traits. (see below) Still, Rathbone was popular enough to play Holmes onscreen 13 more times, (14, if you count his cameo in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective.)
Watson: Nigel Bruce is the bane of Holmes fans. It’s from his portrayal that we get the idea of Watson being older, fatter, and nothing more than comic relief. Pass.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hammer, 1959)

It’s always a little unsettling when filmmakers make more than a few changes to a great story. Usually, said story gets watered down and becomes a huge disappointment. (See my Raise the Titanic review.) Then you get a movie like this and everything just... works! Director Terence Fisher took a LOT of liberties with the story. (See LIST.) Scenes were cut, motives were changed, and one key conflicted character in the text became a villain. Still, it works. For example: when Holmes meets Sir Henry (Christopher Lee in form as a pompous aristocrat), a tarantula crawls out of Sir Henry’s boot, forcing Holmes to beat the bug to death with a cane. I thought the scene was ridiculous at first. (Not to mention that they’re not really dangerous to humans.) Fisher, however, knows what he’s doing. The spider’s appearance actually helps lead Holmes to the real criminal. In the hands of a skilled director, such invented scenes- along with the recreation Sir Hugo Baskerville’s devious backstory- add to the narrative. It’s also a nice to see the great Christopher Lee, a man known for playing dominating characters, having to show fear as a would-be victim.
Holmes: Peter Cushing, Lee’s BFF, is pretty good as Holmes. Truthfully, it’s hard (if not impossible) to find Cushing giving a bad performance. It’s just that most of what he does as Holmes has been covered before or since. He, does, however, show Holmes being quite a jerk when interviewing people (a common trait in the canon). Maybe he was calling on his better-known villain instincts?
Watson: Andre Morell is faithful, if not memorable, as Watson. He’s not a buffoon. I give him credit for that. But there’s not much more. I call him OK.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Curse of the Baskervilles (Burbank Films, 1983)

This animated, one-hour special is amazingly faithful to the original story. Some corners are cut here and there, but it’s hardly noticeable. The filmmakers keep up a good pace, pausing only when the drama requires it. What really amazes me here is how well the characters are defined. Barrymore is elusive; Beryl Stapleton is conflicted; Sir Henry is daring, but arrogant; and even the coachman sounds like a Cockneyed, blue-collar guy from London. Heck, Inspector Lestrade makes an appearance with his trademark antagonism toward Holmes. Like I said above, it’s the behaviors and attitudes of the characters that keep you guessing, and this one really is the best at that.
Holmes: Peter O’Toole voices Holmes here. I like his performance. The only problem is that it’s a little one-track. Whereas Rathbone was focused on being stylized and eccentric, O’Toole is mainly cold and brooding. It’s just lacking a little variety.
Watson: This version is a cross between Nigel Bruce and Andre Morell. He has Bruce’s appearance, but Morell’s faithfulness to the character. Voice actor Earle Cross skillfully balances Watson’s seriousness with good humor to lighten tense situations.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (ITV Granada, 1988)

Part of the “Sherlock Holmes” TV series that ran from 1984 to 1994, this version of the tale premiered as a special in August, 1988. The period Victorian settings are lavish, as would be expected of a popular version of Sherlock Holmes tales. But as an added bonus, the scenes of Devon and the moors were actually filmed outside instead of on sets, giving a greater feeling to the ghoulish world Conan Doyle described. It’s mostly faithful to the original story, though some changes are made. (Lestrade doesn’t appear; instead, Dr, Mortimer is made younger and has a considerably beefed-up role.) This version also the best-looking hound; this time, the canine phantasm is covered in phosphorous and glows in the moonlight- like in the book. (Previous live-action versions just used a dog; Hammer’s film put a nasty-looking mask on the mutt.) The only drawback is how slow this film feels. Though similar in screenplay to the animated version, this Hound lacks the tight, careful pacing and can actually be a little boring. That is, until Holmes makes his re-appearance.
Holmes: Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is regarded as one of the finest (easily rivaling Rathbone). At first, in the London scenes, I felt he was too brooding. However, when Holmes appears on the moors to Dr. Watson, Brett takes control of the show. He has an energy and determination that makes him very interesting. He also shows Holmes least seen trait- empathy. Holmes shows he happy that Watson is safe, given what’s going on. He also has incredible pity for Laura Lyons, the woman tricked and manipulated by the villain. Brett shows just how much Holmes feels for the victims of this story, and how much he wants to find whoever is responsible.

Watson: Edward Hardwicke comes the closest to the print version of Watson. For one thing, he’s not a doddering, old fool. (In the canon, he’s only one year older than Sherlock, who’s roughly 35 in Hound.) Though he lacks the Great Detective’s imagination, this Watson shows you why he’s Holmes’ right-hand man.

(On Youtube HERE)
Any other versions of Hound you can think of? Think I’m off my rocker and have a different opinion on any of these films? Please step up to the mic…


-Full text of Hound of the Baskervilles HERE

-“Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror, Episode 4” (A terrific documentary on the creation of the Hound)
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Friday, October 16, 2015

Film Friday: Guardians of the Galaxy (2015)

I’m definitely souring on comic book films. Most are nothing more than dull origin stories that we’ve seen over and over. The same plot points happen like clockwork in each film. The writing is derivative. And they end with a massive CGI fight scene that lasts longer than a colonoscopy. Guardians of the Galaxy is that too, but it’s such a fun film that you don’t notice.

This is the story of how the Guardians of the Galaxy became a team. The story begins by introducing us to Peter Quill as a child. His mother dies. As she dies, he gets kidnapped by a group of space pirates who will reappear periodically throughout the story. They’re kind of like space trash and they kept threatening to eat him as a child. He is now understandably pissed off at them.
Anyways, after this introduction, the film really begins as we see Quill (Chris Pratt), now an adult, hunt for a mysterious orb. He finds it on a ruined world, but finds himself attacked by bad guys. He barely escapes with the orb, but soon finds himself hunted by bounty hunters, including a green girl (Zoe Saldana as Gamora) who is the daughter of one of the bad guys (Ronan) and a genetically engineered gun-nut raccoon named Rocket and his tree-like friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The orb is being sought by Ronan so he can blow up the universe or something.
Anyhoo, they get thrown into jail by Wreck-It Ralph. They become allies. The orb gets stolen several times and everything ends in a big shootout as Ronan comes to destroy the planet Xandar. Blah blah.

Look, the plot doesn’t matter. It’s a MacGuffin. This film is about the characters, the actors and the dialog. Oh, and the soundtrack.

Why This Film Worked

I really enjoyed this film. Why? Because this film was a ton of fun. It was a joy to watch, unlike so much else these days which feels like a chore. Its jokes were funny. Its scenes were clever and entertaining, even if the plot itself was generic. And the characters were likable and interesting and exactly the kind of characters you want to know more about. In fact, I was sorely tempted to buy some of the comics after the film ended... something I’ve never felt after other comic book films.

So how did this happen?

The answer, in a word, is writing. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman simply wrote the hell out of every scene. In most comic book movies, the scenes are just a construct to hit the required plot points as you watch the character arcs while you wait for the final fight scene. In other words, the “plot” is to see the characters go from slackers to heroes or losers to villains. The action points are just meant to highlight how they’ve changed. This film is different. In this film, the writers cared about each individual scene and they worked hard to make each scene stand on its own as entertainment. The result is that everything is memorable and fun.
Consider how we meet Quill. The scene opens as a fairly decent, if slightly clichéd search of alien ruins. It almost feels like Alien when they are searching the alien ship. This would be enough for most writers. They would have Quill attacked, whip out a one-liner and escape. This film doesn’t do that. Instead, Quill puts a walkman on his head and starts dancing. It’s a great dance too which makes you want to get up and dance with him. Then he grabs a space rat and uses it like a microphone as he kicks another rat. This is hilarious and it tells you right away about the tone of the film and the character... he’s a goofball and a scoundrel.

But there’s one more piece coming. The bad guys come after him and he needs to escape. Rather than give a one-liner and escape or kick all their butts, we get this funny moment where he shows us how calm and cool and kick-ass he is. Then he tells them his criminal name is “Starlord.” You expect them to be impressed, he certainly does. But they aren’t. They’ve never heard of him, and the disappointed look on his face is priceless. Then he escapes, with the orb, in a way which foreshadows the ending.

Scene after scene is like this: surprising, funny and insightful. And each scene builds the movie through foreshadowing. This has become a lost art in Hollywood today.
The film is full of fantastic lines too. Rocket, for example, is a quotable machine: “That’s the first thing you’ve said that isn’t batsh*t crazy!” “Hello... idiots!” and so on. His lines are the type you can’t wait to get home and use on your friends.

The other characters are highly quotable too. I love this exchange between Rocket and another character named Drax, who is humorless. Rocket tells Quill that Drax’s people are entirely literal and do not understand metaphors: “Metaphors go over his head.” Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too good. I would catch it.” There is a brilliant exchange with Wreck-It Ralph too about the use of the word “asshole” in a communiqué. And again, so on.
It is a real joy in this age of forgettable films written by marketing departments to find a film with lines that you find yourself repeating for days (or weeks) later.

All of these great lines, by the way, do an amazing job of telling you who these characters are and creating the relationships between them that make you want more. Add to this that the characters are an interesting mix – they’re not all the same character in different costumes as you typically get. The effects are decent. The fight scenes aren’t too long. And the soundtrack is fantastic. And what you get here is a really entertaining movie. This is perhaps the best entry in the superhero film category in a decade.

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